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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Sunday, October 9, 2016

USS COPAHEE and Crossing the Line


On September 15th the entire engine assembly crew, on which I had become the leading petty officer of the port section, received orders transferring us to the Headquarters Squadron, Patrol Wing One, and I was no longer a part of VP-11.  We were instructed to pack our full bags and report to the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard the next day for transportation.  There was no indication of where we would be sent, but we knew that it would be south and west toward the Solomon Islands where the Marines were fighting on Guadalcanal.
I have no record or recollection of all the names of the other men transferred with me but I do remember one blond, an affable young fellow, Troy Anderson, who would become a good friend as well as shipmate.  My crew also included a squat, dark-haired older man named Berridge (he was probably twenty-three or twenty-four so we called him “Pappy” Berridge since he was oldest on the crew) and a happy-go-lucky Italian from New York, Amuschustagi.  We were only a part of a large contingent of men being moved south for the Solomon Islands campaign.
At the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, the truck deposited us on a dock and we were informed we would board the aircraft carrier USS COPAHEE as passengers.  We had never heard of the COPAHEE but were at first elated that we would be on a large ship that would have full facilities.  Our elation, however, did not last long when we saw the ship tied up at the dock and literally packed with airplanes.
COPAHEE was the first of the small escort carriers.  It was a large freighter hull of four hundred sixty feet (less than half the size of the regular carriers and about one-fourth the size of the NIMITZ and other modern aircraft carriers of today) onto which had been added a hangar deck, a flight deck, and a small superstructure on the starboard side.  Total length of the flight deck was four hundred forty feet.
We were to find that the ship had barely been completed at the Bremerton Navy Yard in Seattle and that its shakedown cruise had been the trip to Hawaii with contractor personnel still aboard.  The little carrier, forerunner of the many CVEs that Henry Kaiser would turn out during the war, was urgently needed to transport a load of Grumman F4F fighters and a few Douglas SBD dive bombers to the Marines at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.
To our dismay when we reported aboard we found that all bunk compartments on COPAHEE were jammed to capacity with ship’s company and passengers that had boarded ahead of us.  We were instructed to stow our seabags and hammocks in storage compartments on the hangar deck.  We had the option of swinging our old fashioned hammocks from hooks in the mess compartments, but that would have meant being rousted out at 0300 when the mess halls would be set up for early breakfast shift.  We preferred instead to simply roll out our hammocks with the thin horsehair mattresses beneath the wing of an airplane on the steel hangar deck at night.
Dick & Diane’s wedding was to be the next afternoon.  I found the division officer to whom we were assigned and requested special liberty for the next day.  He shook his head and stated the COPAHEE would sail early in the morning.  I found a phone booth on the dock and finally got through to Dick at Kaneohe, telling him that Glover or someone would have to stand up with him.  I had no idea when I hung up that it would be several years before we heard each other’s voices again.
Tiny little COPAHEE was filled to overflowing with airplanes.  The hangar deck was full of F4F Wildcat fighters with wings folded.  The flight deck was solidly packed with a dozen SBD dive bombers at the stern and more F4Fs so that no flight operations would be possible.
The only clear space on the flight deck was at the catapult on the port side forward.  The four F4Fs lined up behind the catapult would be our ready airplanes in the event that we encountered enemy ships enroute.  Their guns were loaded and there were pilots aboard.  In case we encountered the enemy, they would take off on a one-way trip.  Since they could not land back aboard, they would ditch in the water so the pilots could be picked up by a destroyer/escort that would accompany COPAHEE.  We hoped that would not be necessary.
Our mission was to deliver the airplanes to the Marines on Guadalcanal.  The Second Marine Raiders had invaded Guadalcanal and had captured the airfield that had been built by the Japanese but they were in desperate need of airplanes for air support to defend against frequent air attacks and to provide air cover while the Japanese were being driven from the rest of the island.  The carrier HORNET and the new WASP were in the Solomons but the marines needed their own close support.  We were carrying, I believe, twelve SBDs and about three dozen F4Fs.
We sailed form Pearl Harbor early in the morning on September 17th.  When we had cleared the torpedo net and set course to the southwest, we discovered that our entire escort consisted of one small destroyer-escort.  It was obvious that if we were spotted by the enemy, we would be a sitting duck.
Anti-aircraft defenses on COPAHEE consisted of four quadruple-mount 40-millimeter “pom-poms”, a few small 20 millimeter cannons, and some 50-caliber machine guns scattered along the fight deck catwalks down each side of the ship.  We had heard scuttlebutt that there was literally a Japanese “torpedo junction” down off the Fiji Islands, but we grimly joked that we did not worry about sub—we said that torpedoes would go through the thin plates of the freighter hull of COPAHEE and out the other side without exploding!  It was wishful thinking.  The calm sunlit horizon was ever ominous and we kept our life jackets near at hand.
Other than the constant threat of enemy submarines I enjoyed my temporary sea duty.  I had never been prone to seasickness.  Brother Richard was not so fortunate.  It was sell that he was in shore-based aviation because he was one of the unfortunate that suffered from chronic seasickness.  It was said that Dick got sick when the last line left the dock and stayed green at the gills until he was back on solid land!
(I later learned that when Richard came south with another part of the VP-11 ground support, he had the misfortune to be assigned for transportation to a destroyer—and destroyers are notorious for rolling and pitching even in a moderate sea.
The story I got was that somewhere down off the Solomons, a four-engine Japanese patrol flying boat saw the destroyer Dick was riding and started what appeared to be a bomb run.  When general quarters sounded the passengers were supposed to go below out of the way.
As the anti-aircraft guns of the destroyer opened up, Dick raised his head up for a look and muttered, “Let the sonabitch come!”  He then laid back down.  It was fortunate that the anti-aircraft discouraged the big Kawanishi.  It turned away without completing the attack.)
The first day out of Pearl all we passengers were organized into watch divisions and were assigned duties to work our way.  Being an “experienced” second class aviation machinist mate, I was assigned as plane captain on the Number Four read F4F behind the catapult.  It was my job to keep the fighter ready to go at any time.  I was delighted because the F4F had a version of the same Pratt and Whitney fourteen-cylinder R-1830 that we had on the PBY-5s.
One precaution that had been taken caused us some extra work on the airplanes.  Prior to sailing, all of the white star insignias on the airplanes on the flight deck had been painted out temporarily with lampblack as “camouflage” so the COPAHEE would not be so visible at night.
During the first night at sea, our escorting destroyer radioed bad news.  We might be in danger from our own forces because in the moonlight red looks black.  With those big black circles on the airplanes, our silhouette with the tiny superstructure well forward and open areas beneath the flight deck fore and aft, we had the perfect silhouette of a small Japanese carrier!  We could be in more danger from friendly subs than from the enemy.  We were promptly put to work scrubbing the lampblack off the airplanes!
Our voyage south was, for the most part, a peaceful cruise.  One memorable event was becoming “shellbacks” when we crossed the equator on the 22nd of September.  It has always been a tradition that the “polliwogs” to be initiated attempt to revolt and get control of the ship before “Davey Jones” comes aboard for the initiation.
On this trip, polliwogs outnumbered shellbacks on the COPAHEE.  We revolted the morning of the equator crossing and, for a time, were quite successful.  Before long we polliwogs were in control of most of the main deck spaces except for the hangar deck area at the stern which was a shellback strong hold.
During the shellback initiation, officers and men alike are fair prey.  We polliwogs had set up a “barber shop” in the forward well deck area at the bow.  When we captured a shellback (black eyes and bloody noses were common) he was escorted forward, his hair summarily cut off, and his face lathered with a foul saltwater paste.
One victim was the ship’s executive officer who had ventured into polliwog space in an endeavor to help quell the rebellion.  The exec promptly stormed up to the bridge where he insisted that the captain do something to get the polliwogs under control.
Since it was all in the spirit of good fun and we had little enough diversion during those black days in the Pacific, the captain simply laughed at the exec.  He said, “Hell, man—I’m a shellback!  I’m not going down there—they will get me, too!”
With the assistance of the escorting destroyer, the COPAHEE captain did put down the rebellion.  The destroyer/escort was faster than the COPAHEE rigging cargo nets over the side and a boarding at sea took place.
A hundred or more new shellbacks from the destroyer swarmed aboard at the stern and, after quite a few more bloody noses and black eyes, the shellback “cops” got the situation under control.  I suffered one of the injuries.  I was below deck running from two shellbacks.  As I leaped through a watertight door I failed to duck my head enough and hit the top of the steel frame.  It knocked me galley west and I was captured.
As the shellbacks dragged me up to the flight deck where the subdued polliwogs were kneeling in rows, I felt something warm running down my face. It was blood from where my scalp had been split open.  A nearby CPO had me escorted to the sick bay where the doctor ensured that I did not have a concussion.  A corpsman shaved a patch of my hair and the doctor put in two or three stitches—allowing as he did that it was a good thing I was a hard headed Ozark boy or I might have hurt myself.
Davey Jones and his mermaids (sailors attired in wigs made of swabs and balloons for boobs) then appeared and we polliwogs were put through the traditional indignities of shellback initiation.  The CPO playing Davey Jones read the indictment for our having invaded the realm of King Neptune and an assembly line was set up that included shaving of heads (they skipped mine because of my bandage), marking with dye, lathering with a fiendish mixture of black grease, and “shaving” with a wooden razor.  We new shellbacks were still showing traces of the stuff when we arrived in New Caledonia five days later.